June 11, 2019
In 1992, Richard Garland graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, a year after being released from the Western Penitentiary. Since then, Garland has become a leader for Pittsburgh’s anti-violence initiative. He is leveraging his unique lived experience to find spaces of light in the lives of gang members and transferring skills gained on the streets to positive and safe alternatives in society.
Richard Garland MSW is the Director of the Center for Health Equity’s Violence Prevention Initiative and Assistant Professor of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.
Richard: We have this picture of urban America that’s really dark. That’s really dark. But we don't look at the roses in the concrete. There are always roses in the concrete that come out of the urban community that a lot of people don't see.
Mike: From CTSI, this is the Products of Pittsburgh, a show about the people in Pittsburgh: innovators, scientists, community leaders, and the remarkable stories behind how they came to be and work they’ve produced. I'm Mike Flock, on the show today, CTSI’s Community Engagement Coordinator Bee Schindler and I catch up about Richard Garland, Director of the Center for Health Equity’s Violence Prevention Initiative and Assistant Professor of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.
Bee: Richard Garland lifts up gun violence victims by providing avenues for positivity through their work with the Center for Health Equity’s Violence Prevention Initiative, which has a two-pronged mission. One, to review homicide cases in Allegheny County, and find patterns and details in murder cases. And two, the Initiative serves as a hospital-based program with the goal of preventing gun injury retaliation and criminal involvement. Gun violence survivors are recruited from hospital sites and offered case management and social support. With the help of interventionists, participants outline goals and barriers to address during the 6-month duration of the intervention.
Richard: It’s having that kind of knowledge that is really important. How we can really get to the bottom of things. We aren't police, but we know the complexity of the community. We know the drivers. What are the certain drivers. And how we can get in front of it. And to hopefully steer someone to go the right way, and not the wrong way. I believe that I can take a gun out of a kid’s hand with a good opportunity.
Bee: Richard has first-hand, lived experience of being in a gang on the other side of the state from Pittsburgh. And really, it was the gang who raised Richard when his family could not. Decades of his life were spent behind bars and in his role at the University of Pittsburgh he does not shy away from the record – he leverages his experience to think about policy and change.
Richard: It’s my past that has brought me to this work - I mean, I am a former gang member from Philadelphia. I have spent over 23 and a half years in the prison system. The last bit that I did was 12 and a half years. Because I was a supporter of the Move organization, I was in the hole for like 32 months because I refused to cut my hair. Ive been transferred to many institutions and ended up in Western. When I finally got out of solitary confinement one of the things was I went to school. I got my GED. But I didn’t stop there. I started taking classes from Pitt while down at Western Penitentiary.
Bee: State Correctional Institution – Pittsburgh, historically known as the "Western Penitentiary" or "Western Pen") was a low-to-medium security correctional institution, operated by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, located about five miles west of Downtown Pittsburgh. It served as a major Civil War prison in the mid 1800s. In January of 2017, 26 years after Richard served time, the state governor announced the closing of this facility. Richard’s long dreadlocks were a symbol to those who met him while he was in jail and the underlying message of his support for the Move organization’s resistance of oppressive systems and power made him highly recognizable even outside of the prison gates.
Richard: I got out of Western Penitentiary August 21st, 1991. When I first came home I was doing construction work. I got the opportunity to go into the Pittsburgh Public Schools. And I was supposed to be talking about doing drug and alcohol prevention. All of the kids that I got that were involved with me were kids that were in gangs. This was at the height of the gang stuff here in Pittsburgh in the early 90s. I used to have long dreadlocks. One of the things when I was in the penitarary, I used to do was take pictures in the waiting room down western penitentiary. So a lot of the kids that were coming in to see their dads, or their brothers, or cousins, and stuff like that, they would see me in the visiting room. And now they would see me in the streets. They knew I had a background in gangs. But I didn’t want no kids to go through what I went through. So that’s how I really got into this intervention. The nicest thing is when I went back I got my master’s degree in community organization, and what’s the most important thing to me today are the relationships I got to garner over the years. That people will pick up the phone when I call sometimes. When I am in need of whatever, you know, I have been blessed to get that kind of reaction when I make that call.
Bee: Picking up the phone seems to make sense, as Richard describes the gang he was a part of as a family. A group of folks who would be there when needed.
Richard: Family. You know, a gang was a family for me – you know, dudes that I knew that we could put our backs against the wall and fight anybody. That I knew that we had a camaraderie. I went to jail for guys. Guys went to jail for me. You know, the whole nine yards. I mean, that’s a commitment that nobody does.
Bee: Right, so it’s advocacy.
Richard: It’s advocacy but it’s deeper - we can talk about brotherhood. I believe that – the one thing, everyone looked at a gang as being bad. What I try to do - especially since I have been here – is show the strengths - even showing the gang members – who used to be gang members – their strengths of what they have together if they put it into a positive way. A positive way and not a negative way. I think that is the thing that a lot of people embraced about me cause I was always talking about, alright, I am not going to break you up, but let’s do something positive, let’s not do something negative, let’s do something positive.
Bee: Richard finds the string linking – say - the strengths of a gang member to a Chief Operating Officer of a Fortune 500 company. For example, if someone is organized and about their money, there are links that Richard highlights to bring those skills to a parallel career.
Richard: I learned how to connect the dots, You know what I mean. I learned how to manuever between people, institutions. And right now, everything that I do is based on the things that I learned by connecting the dots when I was a gang member. All that I am doing is I am doing it the right way and I am doing it in a way where I can help people. People in Allegheny County have been very good to me and allowing me to do what I do.
Bee: Richard believes that young people are going to change the world. Kids want a life where a house has a white picket fence. And to get it, some might think that lucrative drug deals will get them there. But Richard says the life doesn’t look like the TV version. The time period between being a dealer and getting arrested is limited.
Richard: We have this picture of urban America that’s really dark. There’s a rose in the concrete. There’s a whole bunch of roses in the concrete that come out of the urban community that a lot of people don't see. They don't see that mom who is taking care of a couple kids whose not even her kids. You know, doing everything that she can do to keep her kids safe.
Bee: What is the thing that would propel change? What is the magic bullet?
Richard: Opportunities. Opportunites are the most important thing. I think having more opportunities. We have to challenge young people. We have to challenge community. We have to challenge parents, and everybody. We have to challenge everybody that they have skin in this game.
Bee: Richard’s work seeks to find gainful employment to folks to get them to reach their dream. It starts by moving people from one community to another to interrupt the transmission of the disease of violence, and through linking the initiative’s outreach workers - called life coaches with gang members and shooting victims to dismantle feuds that stand in the way of people attaining their goals. And to do this, each person and neighborhood has to be seen as unique.
Richard: The thing that we have to understand is the complexity of the community. We can go from Oakland to the Hill District and people think totally different. We go from the Hill to Homewood to the Southside or the Northside there is a different mentality in these communities. We have to begin to understand the complexities of the community. That’s the thing that I really want people to start to understand. ‘Cause everyone wants to do when we talk about violence prevention is have this cookie cutter approach that you can apply what is happening in Chicago, that you can apply to Pittsburgh. That is not true. You might be able to apply certain segments of what they do in Chicago, but you have to really formally just plan according to what the community norms are.
Bee: Richard shared a beautiful sentiment about the way that housing changes in the city - i.e. when a housing complex gets ripped down to make room for development - with that is the ripping up of roots. The passing on of generational knowledge of how to grow up, the offerings, the lessons that we learn from our elders. And said that if you have literally been geographically displaced how that metaphorically does an injustice to your foundation.
Richard: You don't have no home - where you was born and raised. The sense of where you really come from. So that is the first things that I say - you know - I am from Philly, that’s where my roots are, that’s where my family is. That’s where I understand the things that I learned growing up. It’s the foundation that my grandmother laid with me at an early age is the reason why I can do the things that I am doing now because she laid a strong foundation. My grandmother never lied to me, I never lied to her. If I was wrong, I got chastised for it. She brought me up in the church; brought all of us up. I had four brothers and one sister. But she – um - she instilled my moral and ethical value in me at an early age. It’s something that we can hear kids always talking about - their moms or their grandmoms - who are the one that are the most influential in their lives.
Bee: And while Richard acknowledges that women - time and time again - are the ones who show up and stay, and raise generation after generation of young people, it is the men who Richard would like to focus on.
Richard: I can say I am part of the problem because I spent all of those years in the penitentiary. Because that means I wasn't here. I wasn't here to tell young people this isn't the way to go. Now, this is what my goal in life has been – to – as I use this slang - flip the script: this is who I used to be, but this is who I am today. And this is the reason I am doing the things I am doing today: is to save young people from that lifestyle that we went through.
Bee: And despite much of the progress made since the time when Richard found himself in a jail cell, there are still young people who find themselves in a gang. Leadership in gangs provide work and support and shelter, which counters other business owners in the city who are not believing in or trusting young folks of color. There are people who make sure that the young person has somewhere to sleep. That the young person has a plate of food to eat. Richard says having more outreach workers who can serve as safe spaces to fill the gaps is needed. People from the community who know the community.
Richard: We have to become better listeners. One of the things that people always want to call me an expert. I am not an expert - I just listen. I just listen to what the kids say and hopefully that I can turn them to the direction that they are really trying to go into. But you know it’s mentoring as well. We have to really work with kids through this. The most devastating thing for me is when a kid says to me, alright Rich you helped me and my sister with dinner tonight, but how about tomorrow night. Well, I don’t know if I am going to be by – you know, I will try to be by you know but I have to go and do what I got to do. And you know what that kid is saying to me? I got to do what I got to do to feed my sister.
Bee: Right, you have to honor that.
Richard: What can you say? What can you say? What’s the way that he or she is making their money to make sure that he is fed. That his brothers and sisters are fed. Is mom around? Is dad around? What is mom into; what is dad into?
Bee: There are many things that we can do collectively to limit the number of times you are visiting a gunshot victim in the hospital. What’s one?
Richard: Same way that I rely on the guys coming out of the penitentiary right now. If we teach them a marketable skill while they are there, they are more likely to get a job when they come home. A job where they got a certain skill that can be used. And that they can make enough money to survive on. Not a job at McDonalds. Not a job at Burger King. It has to feel really rewarding and something that they can give back. We can look at a lot of people that are on child support, you know, who don’t have drivers licenses. We have to work out ways to get these people into the workforce and make them productive members of society. And I believe that we can do it. And right now we have some progressive people at the top who are willing to try to do some different things now.
Bee: If there’s one word you would use to describe yourself, what would that be?
Richard: Silly. I have fun.
Mike: Richard Garland, Master’s in Social Work, Director of the Center for Health Equity’s Violence Prevention Initiative, and Assistant Professor of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. And by the way, Richard has received multiple awards for his efforts in the community. He went from gang member and prison inmate to becoming one of the most well-known and respected anti-violence experts in the region. He’s coming full circle. And through it all, committed to the streets, he himself a rose that grew from concrete.
Mike: That’s our show. Thank you for listening to the Products of Pittsburgh. If you know an extraordinary individual, someone who is having a positive impact on the Pittsburgh community, let us know by emailing us at email@example.com. And be sure to check out our website www.ctsi.pitt.edu to learn more. I’m Mike Flock along with Bee Schindler and Zach Ferguson, until next time on the Products of Pittsburgh.